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But, alas! we wonder at the sottish stupidity of Israel, and forget that in them we see our own picture. Extreme and singular as their folly might be, in their idolatries, it was not more so than is ours, when we feel reluctant to draw near to God in close communion, and fly for happiness to sensual and carnal gratification.
As one great cause of our departures from God has been supposed to be a neglect of the word of God, it will ill become me, in writing on the means of returning to him, to forget to make use of that unerring guide. Hence it is, that 1 have endeavoured, as much as possible, to introduce some particular part or parts of the word of God, as the ground of what has been advanced on every subject.
There is much advice given in'scripture respecting the return of backsliders, both as individuals, and as collective bodies. But that which I shall here notice is the counsel of Christ to the church at Ephesus, who had fallen under rebuke for having left their first love. Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent; and da the first works.
The first thing observable. in this piece of sacred counsel, is, that we remember from whence we are fallen. This might have a tendency to convince us of our sad defects, if we were to compare our spirit with that of the primitive Christians, and consider the difference. They are frequently described as little children, denoting, no doubt, their littleness in their own eyes, their love one to another, their readiness to forgive injuries, their modesty, and above all their godly simplicity. Like little children, they were unacquainted with the arts of dissimulation and intrigue. Laying aside all malice, and guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and evil speakings, as new-born babes they desired and fed upon tine sincere milk of the word, and grew thereby. Is there nothing in this picture of a primitive Christian that makes us blush? Sure I am, it ought, whether it does or not. In them surely we must see and remember from whence we are fallen.
Another picture of primitive Christianity is given us in Acts ii. 42. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine, in fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers. From this account, we may learn, 1. That primitive Christians looked upon soundness in the faith as of great importance. They were strangers to that spirit of indifference to truth which loves to represent its doctrines as mere matters of speculation, and insinuates that 'it matters not what a man believes, if his practice be but good.' They would have trembled at the thought of deviating from that gospel which had been made the power of God to their salvation. 2. That the fellowship which they maintained with one another arose out of a union of sentiments in apostolical doctrines. They were full of charity; but their charity was not of that kind which led them to have fellowship with men of all principles. They loved the souls of men too well to deceive them by countenancing what they believed to be pernicious and destructive errors. S. They exercised a religious regard to the positive institutions of Christ, as well as to the doctrine of salvation through his name. They not only listened to his instructions as their Prophet, and relied upon his atonement as their Priest, but cheerfully complied with his institutions as their King. 4. They were men that dwelt much with God in prayer. Having obtained mercy themselves, they joined in supplicating the divine throne for the salvation of others. Nor did they confine their devotions to the church, but carried them into their families and their closets. Let this lovely picture of primitive Christianity be closely reviewed; and let us, by this means, remember from whence toe are fallen, and repent.
Farther: It might be of use to compare our spirit and conduct with that which prevailed at the Reformation. It may be difficult to ascertain with precision the difference between that age and the present. But there are two things which I think may be pointed out, which are self-evident. 1. The principles they imbibed and preached were very different from what at this time generally prevail. The doctrines which the generality of the reformers held were such as follow: a trinity of persons in the Godhead ; the deity and atonement of Christ; justification by faith; predestination; efficacious grace; the certain perseverance of the saints, &c. These doctrines they preached, and looked upon them as consistent with a free and unreserved address to unconverted sinners. How far the body of the reformed churches are gone off from them, I need not say. it is true, the reformers imbibing these or any other sentiments, is no proof of their being divine: but there is one thing that deserves notice, viz. their moral tendency. Have not the reformed churches, in proportion as they have forsaken the doctrines of the reformers, forsaken also that purity, zeal, and ardour, that uprightness before men, and close walking with God, for which they were distinguished? 2. Their attachment to what they accounted divine truth was very different from ours. To maintain the doctrines and ordinances of Christ, in their primitive simplicity, they hazarded the loss of all things; and great numbers of them actually resigned their lives, rather than give them up. It was to enjoy these that they threw off the yoke of popery, and claimed the right of private judgment. We also claim this right, and so far we do well; yea, herein we exceed them, particularly in allowing to others that right which we claim for ourselves. But though we understand religious liberty better than they did, yet it is too evident we make a much worse use of it. Instead of using it as a mean for obtaining truth, great numbers among us rest in it as an end. Religious liberty, however equitable and valuable it is in itself, is certainly of no further use to us, than as it is applied to the discovery of truth, and the practice of righteousness. But the spirit of the present age is to boast of the liberty of thinking for ourselves, till we lose all attachment to religious principles, except an overweening one towards our own conceits, be they right or wrong: and this is the same thing as to boast of a mean till we have lost the only good end to be answered by it. The temper of the present age, so far as I have had opportunity to observe it, is, loudly to cry up the right of judging for themselves, which undoubtedly all men ought to have: but then, they very unjustly infer from this, that it matters not what they believe, if they are but sincere in it; that is, if a man's thoughts are but his own, it matters not whether they be right or wrong. Another false inference which they draw Vol. VIII. «
is, that because they hare a right to think for themselves without being called to account for it by their fellow-creatures, therefore they have the same right in regard to the Governor of the world. The indifference of truth and error being thus admitted, the mind becomes susceptible of any thing that offers; and thus the great truths of revelation are slighted, perhaps, if for no other reason, because they occupied a place in the creeds of their forefathers. A comparison of times, on these subjects may assist us in remembering from whence ice are fallen.
Once more: It would be profitable to recollect the best parts of our lives, and compare them with what we now are. Think, backsliding Christian, what an effect those sacred truths have had upon your heart, which since, it may be, you have held with a loose hand, and have been almost inclined to abandon: think what delight you have taken in those ways, which you have since neglected ; what abhorrence you have felt against those sins in which you have since thought there was no great harm, and so have yielded to them; how you have been grieved when you have seen other Christians degenerate into carnality,sloth, pride, or worldly-mindedness : think —ah! where shall 1 stop? Do not forget to ask your soul at the close of every thought, Is it better with me now than then? We are not only counselled to remember from whence we are fallen, but also called on to repent.
Repentance is a godly sorrow for sin ; and if ever there be any true revival of religion, it must originate in this. When Judah returned to the Lord after their captivity, it was with bitter weeping. Going and weeping, they sought the Lord their Qod. There can be no well-grounded peace or joy restored to our mind, while the idols of our hearts remain unlamented. God insists upon these being given up ; and that, not in a way of secret reluctance, but with holy abhorrence. Nor are we called upon to lament merely on account of positive acts of sin, but even for our sins of omission—because we have/orsa&en our first love.
Some professing Christians seem to have no notion of any obligation that they are under to love Christ and divine things. 'It is the work of God,' say they, * to affect our hearts, and enable us to. love Christ: we cannot command the influence of the Spirit, nor keep our own souls alive.' This is very true, but not in the sense in which they plead it. The hearts of men, even of the best of men, are so very bad, that unless a kind of perpetual miracle be wrought in them, their love will be sure to expire. To preserve alive a spark in the midst of an ocean would not be so great a wonder as the preserving the love of Christ in our hearts. But if nothing be obligatory on us, but what we can do of ourselves, or in other words, what we, in this our corrupted state, can find in our own hearts to do, it must follow, that we are not obliged to do any good thing whatever; for without Christ, we can do nothing; and so it must follow that we have no cause for self-reflection for the contrary, but have a good right to make ourselves easy, and to be contented with that degree of love and holiness which we have, seeing it is such a measure as God pleases to bestow upon us. But, in this case, there could be no propriety in the church at Ephesus being rebuked for having left their first love, or called upon to repent for it. Repentance, if genuine, will lead us to the other part of Christ's advice; namely, Do the first works. The first works are the works of the best ages of the church, and the best times in our life. If there be any considerable revival in the church, or in the souls of individuals, it will be when the diligence, disinterestedness, tenderness of conscience, generosity, and faithfulness of those times are imitated.
In the last paper, I attempted to point out some of the means of returning to God, founded on the advice given to the church at Ephesus: in this, I shall make a few observations upon the address to the church at Laodicea; whose character, I am afraid, bears but too near a resemblance to that of the present age. The address of Christ to that lukewarm and self-sufficient people, is as follows: Thou say est, I am rich and increased in goods, and have need' of nothing: and knowest not that thou are wretched, and miserable, andpoor, and blind, and naked. I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou